J. N. Halm’s thoughts…. Dangerous Employees: Counterproductive work behaviour and customer service


Counterproductive work behaviour (CWB) can been defined as those acts of volition committed by employees that hurt, or are intended to hurt an organisation, and its stakeholders, including customers, fellow employees, suppliers and distributors, debtors and creditors, etc. Every different employee has a unique way of exhibiting CWB. Therefore, counterproductive work behaviour can be exhibited in a variety of ways. CWBs include stealing, or even destroying company property. The quantum of loss, on a daily basis, due to theft and destruction of company property can be staggering.

Individuals exhibiting CWB are those who will willingly leave the air conditioner on, even when they are heading out of the office for an extended period. They will also intentionally take very long lunch breaks. The level of the sabotage that such an individual can cause knows no limit.

When employees engage in counterproductive work behaviour, they can go to the extent of using alcohol and other drugs, even during working hours. Such behaviour makes them a danger to themselves and their colleagues. Some of them will become unnecessarily violent at the slightest provocation. These individuals will intentionally come to work late without any proper explanation.

According to one writer, these individuals can even resort to intentionally working slowly. The quality of their work of counterproductive employees will naturally begin to suffer. Some individuals, when they begin to exhibit these characteristics, will become withdrawn in the office. They will not join in office chatter, will not laugh at a joke everyone finds amusing and would not be seen at any out-of-work gathering. I personally know of a driver of a Chief Executive who used his position to sabotage his boss by polluting the minds of staff. On his own, he became the single biggest cause of staff turnover in the company.

From the above, it is clear that employees who engage in counterproductive behaviour can direct their negative behaviour into a variety of ways. They can attack the organisation itself or they can turn their frustrations at co-workers. The reason behind the majority of CWB is the desire of the individuals involved to get their pound of flesh, regardless of who they hurt.

In my experience, employees who exhibit counterproductive work behaviour are dangerous characters and they are better off outside the company. Their unpredictable behaviour makes them a liability. When the organisation makes a mistake and places such an individual at the front line to deal with customers, then there is bound to be disaster. This can lead what is referred to as customer-directed counterproductive work behaviour.

Customer-directed CWB is a real and present danger for many organisations. The behaviours can range from a few wrong words spoken to customers here and there to outright dangerous that can even threaten the health and lives of customers. If you have seen videos of workers of eateries bathing in wash basins meant to wash foodstuffs or spitting in food meant to be consumed by customers, then, by all means, you have witnessed customer-directed CWB at work.

One of the weirdest I have watched was that of a pizza delivery guy who opened the pizza box on the way to do the delivery and brushed his hair on to the food. He then went ahead and delivered the food to the customer. There are employees in eateries who have been known to lick food meant for customers even before serving same to customers. Then there are the many videos of baggage-handling employees at airports just manhandling customer luggage, dropping bags and suitcases without a care for what is inside. All these are displays of customer-directed CWB. There are several studies on what causes CWB and specifically customer-directed CWB.

One of the causes of this sort of behaviour is what scientists refer to as co-worker incivility. Co-worker incivility has been described as uncivil behaviours of individual co-workers, such as office gossips, hurtful remarks, as well as any other behaviour that negatively affects another co-worker.

A 2014 study carried out in the US involving four hundred and thirty-eight employees from a variety of restaurants and bars sought to study a number of causes of customer-directed CWB. One of the causes the researchers took a close at was the natural disposition of the employee. Trait anger, the tendency of the individual to experience feelings of irritation, annoyance, fury and rage, was found to play a key role in CWB.

It is a fact that there are people who easily get angry. The slightest issue can get them to fly off the handle. Scientists refer to such individuals as high anger trait individuals—and they tend to engage more in customer-directed CWB. The thing about anger is that it must be directed towards someone or something. Anger requires a target. Therefore, when these individuals get angry, the customer standing in front of them naturally becomes that target.

A more recent study carried out in 2018 among more than two hundred and fifty frontline employees of six luxury hotels in South Korea made some interesting assertions regarding customer-directed CWB. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Service Theory and Practice and was humorously titled, Go home and kick the dog: Spill over effects of experienced co-worker incivility on customer-directed counterproductive work behaviour.”

The researchers found that when co-workers do not relate well with each other, the effects spill over to frontline employees’ relationships to customers. When a manager or colleague gets under the skin of a frontline staff it would take some composure for the CSE not to direct his or her frustration at the next customer. Co-worker incivility has the potential to stress out employees and this leads to emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion has been found to be one of the main antecedents of customer-directed CWB. It is important to note that dealing with customers requires the expenditure of labour. However, the kind of labour is typically not the physical labour exerted by construction workers or sports persons. The kind of labour frontline employees mainly exert is emotional labour. However, it has been found that different individuals exert different levels of emotional labour, depending on the personality of the person.

There are people for whom dealing with customers comes naturally. Such individuals exert very little emotional labour. There are others who will have to exert a lot more labour just to even put a smile on their faces. For these individuals, the slightest stress from a co-worker can easily trigger customer-directed CWB.

Customer stressors are another cause of customer-directed CWB. Customer stressors refers to those interactions between customers and employees that employees perceive as stressful and therefore react negatively to them. The emphasis on excellent customer service all over tends to give the impression that customers never do anything wrong. But that is far from the case. There is a lot of proof that poor treatment of employees from customers is very common.

In my many years as a front line staff, I have had my fair share of such encounters. There are some customers who, by virtue of being customers, tend to treat those serving them as second-class citizens or even like slaves. Some customers suffer from some serious complexes—both inferior and superior. When these individuals come into a transaction, these complexes tend to play out. I have seen customers command full-grown men and women about like they would their house-helps at home. I have seen customers scream and verbally abuse managers—managers who are far advanced in age and socio-economic status than the said customers.

Typical customer stressors can also include abnormal, unfair (and ambiguous) customer requests, aggressive behaviours from customers, and general unpleasantness from customers. My better half happens to work in sales and marketing and sometimes the unholy hours her customers call can easily drive a CSE nuts.

Stories of customers pestering CSEs are very common. There are even customers who wield their status as “elite” customers like a sword over the heads of the CSEs who serve. These customers know that if they were to file any report against a CSE, that employee might lose his or her job that very moment. All these can put a customer-facing employee on edge. The slightest push can get such an individual into serious counterproductive behaviour.

Employees. Customers. Humans alike all have their issues to deal with. The idea behind a great customer experience is to ensure that each learns to put aside whatever baggage they are carrying just to ensure that the brief moment they interact is as pleasurable as possible. However, this is easier said than done. More often than not, things do not go too well and in most cases, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the CSE. That is understandable. Businesses exist primarily to serve customers. The customer is the one with the money so it makes sense if the customer is the one whose happiness must be considered first and foremost.

Individuals who are placed before customers must be people who have what it takes—the heart and head—to deal with all the stress that comes with the front line. Unfortunately, many organisations end up placing the wrong employees in the firing line—individuals who can easily resort to counterproductive behaviours when things turn south. When they turn their frustrations at the very customers they are supposed to serve, that is when they become most dangerous.

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